I have trouble staying in the dentist’s chair even now. It's something about lying prone under strip lighting while strangers loom over you. That impersonal smell of a clinical room.
My first birth, two-and-a-half years ago, was a good birth, because my son and I came out of it intact. But it was a bad labour. Almost every aspect of it failed – from the painful induction to the labour itself, which – thanks to an early but patchy epidural – stalled entirely for 14 hours. Then came the convulsions and projectile vomit (me), the foetal distress (my son), the sepsis (me), the alarms, the emergency C-section, the postpartum haemorrhage (me, again).
Even in the beginning hours, though, when I chatting with the midwives and accepting bites of sandwich and sips of Diet Coke from my husband, I was starting to unravel. I’ve had anxiety, depression and panic disorder for years, but have managed to keep it down to a dull roar for the most part. Somehow, being fastened to a bed by the epidural and baby monitor caused my heart to batter against my ribcage like a frightened bird. Each contraction, each beep of the baby’s heart felt like a fresh assault. I disappeared into myself like Daniel Kaluuya in the film Get Out, drowning in his own hypnotised subconscious. By the time things went south I was vacuum-sealed in sheer, surging, trapped animal panic, the air turning to mud in my lungs, suffocating in plain sight. The feeling has never fully left me to this day. Dentist’s chairs, as I say, are hard.
We are coming to the end of Birth Trauma Awareness week, which is a thing, because birth trauma is a thing. I didn't know you could get trauma from birth, or that I had it, until it was officially diagnosed. I thought you could only get it from war. But it makes a sort of sense. Everything during my labour felt like a war.
In my part of the country, the NHS offers a service called Birth Afterthoughts, where a midwife goes through your birth notes with you to dispel some of the mystery and, hopefully, the terror of your experience. I did mine a few months ago and realised that I'd been blaming myself and my decision to have an early epidural for stalling the labour and bringing about the cascade of medical interventions that plunged me further into helplessness. If only I'd been stronger, I'd thought, and stuck out the contractions, maybe I wouldn't have caused such a fuss.
I thought you could only get trauma from war. But it makes a sort of sense. Everything during my labour felt like a war
Tosh, the midwife told me. Without the epidural, I'd have endured 14 hours of back-to-back contractions, and anyway, the baby got stuck. Everything that happened was inevitable. And none of it my fault.
The third trimester of my second pregnancy has brought many delights. Haemorrhoids. Reflux. The tendency for everyone to look uncomfortable when I enter a room in case I start complaining AGAIN. And a flurry of stints in maternity with early-labour scares.
Today, I am 37 weeks pregnant and have been delivered to hospital again, this time by a pre-dawn, midwife-summoned ambulance. I look around the delivery suite I’m in, and start to recognise the chipped ceiling tile, the row of high windows and the signs forbidding you to open them, the bird-and-branch decal thoughtfully tattooed to the wall. All the air leaves the room. What's left in my lungs turns to treacle. I start to realise, with a surge of horror, that this is the very room I laboured in for 14 hours, two years ago. My thumbs whizz across my phone keyboard as I text everyone I know, trying to ignore the helpless panic that's starting to vacuum-seal around me, again.
And after a while, it works. After a long while, that is. Not because I'm strong, but because the human body simply cannot maintain that level of personal alarm. At some point, it begins to taper off – just a little; just enough to accept a cup of tea and, at lunchtime, a nuked baked potato. Just enough for me to open my Kindle app and absorb at least three of the words I read.
Eventually – after, in fact, 14 hours – I am discharged with painkillers. No baby today. When I get home, past midnight, I curl up in bed and sob with decompression. What an unpleasant day. But one that ended. One I survived. One I walked away from with a stomach mostly full of baked potato.
And I am infinitesimally less terrified of birth now. Not by much, but by a fraction of a hair. I will get through it. At some point, it will end. I will get to go home. Baked potatoes will continue to exist.
Time to book that dentist’s appointment.